Girl: My Childhood and the Second World War

Girl: My Childhood and the Second World War

by Alona Frankel


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Alona Frankel was just two years old when Germany invaded Poland. After a Polish carpenter agreed to hide her parents but not her, Alona's parents desperately handed her over to a greedy woman who agreed to hide her only as long as they continued to send money. Isolated from her parents and living among pigs, horses, mice, and lice, Alona taught herself to read and drew on scraps of paper. The woman would send these drawings to Alona’s parents as proof that Alona was still alive. In time, the money ran out and Alona was tossed into her parents’ hiding place, at this point barely recognizing them. After Poland’s liberation, Alona’s mother was admitted to a terminal hospital and Alona handed over to a wealthy, arrogant family of Jewish survivors who eventually cast her off to an orphanage. Despite these daily horrors and dangers surrounding her, Alona’s imagination could not be restrained. A powerful testament to the resilience of the human spirit,Girlis the story of a young girl’s self-preservation through a horrible war and its aftermath. Faithful to the perspective of the heroine herself, Frankel, now a world renowned children’s author and illustrator, reveals a little girl full of life in a terrible, evil world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253022356
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 09/12/2016
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Alona Frankel was born in Krakow, Poland, in June of 1937. After surviving World War II, she immigrated to Israel in 1949. Alona has written and illustrated over 50 children's books, including the international best seller Once Upon a Potty. Her books have won numerous prizes, including several Parents’ Choice awards.

Read an Excerpt


My Childhood and the Second World War

By Alona Frankel, Sondra Silverston

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2016 Alona Frankel
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-02241-7



I was familiar with two kinds of lice, head lice and clothes lice. Only later did I learn of the existence of another kind, pubic lice, from the four-volume Encyclopedia of Sexual Knowledge that survived from the Jewish gynecologist's library. The doctor himself, his mother, wife, two daughters, and baby son were murdered by the Germans. That was at the beginning of the war.

When Hania Seremet took me out of the village where I was hiding, pretending to be a Christian child, and dumped me at my parents' hiding place, I learned for the first time the difference between head lice and clothes lice — an important and meaningful difference.

When I was in the village, the lice never bothered me. They swarmed all over me, and of course I scratched constantly. I thought that's how it was in the world.

More than once, a careless louse would get caught under my nail. More than once one dropped out of my hair when I bent my head. What was the fate of such an adventurous louse that suddenly loses the head of its little Jewish girl? None of that worried me, everything was natural. Sleeping on straw in a coffin that was a bench by day and a bed by night. The horse, the cow, the stupid geese that nipped my ankles. The carrots, the corn, the wheat, the flowers. The mice, the lice, the bugs. The boiling potato soup that burned my palms and congealed into grayish vomit when it cooled. The old man, the grandfather, who spit his lungs out until he died, but not before he pulled my tooth with rusty carpenter's pliers and rescued me from terrible pain.

It was my mother who was so very, very worried.

It was night when Hania Seremet dumped me at my parents' hiding place. The room my parents were hiding in had two doors, one of them from the stairs. We never used that door, and no one imagined it could be opened, not even the building's tenants. The room, a Jewish gynecologist's office before the war, was now disguised as the carpentry shop of Mr. Juzef Juzak, carpenter and alcoholic. The other door was from the Juzaks' apartment.

When the ghetto was about to be liquidated, the Juzaks were kind enough to hide my mother and father, but on one condition: that they come without the girl. Without me.

Softly, Hania Seremet knocked the agreed-upon knock on the staircase door. I sensed her anxiety and realized that fear has a smell. No one was allowed to see that door open. It would bring the Gestapo running, and that would be the end of all of us, including the Juzaks.

My mother, who must have been lying in wait for hours on the other side of the door, opened it instantly. Hania Seremet shoved me hard over the threshold. She tossed a bundle of papers and a bundle of rags, my clothes, after me. My green dress with the satin flowers, the one my mother made for me and sent to the village, the one I wore when my picture was taken with Hania Seremet in the photographer's studio so she could send it to my mother and father as proof that I was still alive — in addition to my drawings, which she sent from time to time — the green dress wasn't in the bundle of rags. Hania Seremet had obviously sold it.

Hania Seremet ran off quickly after finally getting rid of me. She must have breathed a sigh of relief, sure that we would all be dead before long. The smell of the sweat of her fear lingered.

Hania Seremet had wanted to get rid of me for a long time, but even so, she didn't throw me into the street like she did Daniel, the sweet boy she left at the ghetto gate after his parents were murdered in an aktion and there was no one to pay to keep him in the village. The ghetto had already been liquidated when Hania Seremet got rid of me, but even so, she didn't toss me into the street. Maybe she believed my mother's lies about her connection to the underground — the Polish underground, the AK, the "Home Army," whose members were not known as Jew lovers — and about their promise to kill her the minute they found out I was dead, and they'd do it even though I was Jewish.

The meeting had been set up in an exchange of letters that arrived in the Juzaks' name, written in a prearranged code.

The door closed behind me. The key scraped in the keyhole. The bolt fell into place.

I stood there. I thought that's how it was in the world.

I STOOD WITH MY BACK TO THE DOOR, MY PRECIOUS FORGED papers and the rags packed in a threadbare knapsack at my feet.

In front of me was a woman, my mother, thin and light-skinned, her lips sunken, her gold crowns pulled from her mouth in a series of exchanges — a gold crown for another week in the village, another week on the Aryan side, the side of life, the life of the child, Ilonka, my life. A man stood behind her, my father. I didn't remember them.

I didn't remember who they were.

My mother said, Ilonka, Ilusia.

My father struck a match stub and lit a lamp, or maybe a candle.

They looked at me, and looked and looked. My mother wept silently. My father covered his face with his hands and smoothed back his hair, leaving his hands on his forehead and eyes — a gesture that stayed with him till the day he died. His pale, high forehead invaded his dark, straight hair in two deep gulfs.

My mother picked me up, put me on the massive desk, undressed me and said, Ilonka, Ilusia, Ilitska. But I was Irenka. I knew that I was Irenka. I knew that I was Irena Seremet.

I saw and I was invisible.

In the light of the candle or the lamp — I recall a foul smell — the woman began inspecting me, checking every little part of my body.

My mother and father hadn't seen me for months, and despite all the proof, the photographs and the drawings that Hania Seremet sent them, they hadn't believed I was still alive. Every little part of my body astonished my mother profoundly. How healthy I was, how tanned. How many sores I had on my hands, how deep they were — my knuckles were scraped down to the bone from rubbing potatoes on the sharp, rusty grater. How shiny my cheeks were, so round and red. Like two apples, she said. How hard the skin on the bottom of my feet was — I'd run around barefoot in the village. How dirty I was.

And how I was teeming with lice.

She walked around me over and over again, and I wanted very much not to be there.

My father stood and watched, occasionally putting his palms back on his forehead and eyes.

My mother and father, who'd been in their hiding place for days on end, were pale, exhausted, and starved. My father had very large eyes, and my mother no longer had teeth. My father had pulled out all her gold crowns and bridges, the ones her brother Leibek, a dentist, had fitted her with after she'd come back ill from her pioneering escapade in Palestine.

My father had pulled out her bridges and crowns with his pocketknife.

My father's expensive, amazing, ultramodern pocketknife, the Swiss pocketknife he was so proud of, the first thing he'd bought for himself with his own money. My father had worked from the time he was a child, and others always needed the money he earned more than he did — his widowed mother Rachela Goldman, his younger brother Henryk Goldman, and his baby brother David.

That pocketknife was the height of sophistication. A remarkable tool that I found endlessly magical. The most wonderful in the world. Countless parts popped out of it.

Some of them had functions the world had never known.

From the time she was a child, my mother suffered from problems with her teeth, which got much worse when she was a pioneer in Palestine. She immigrated there with members of the Hashomer Hatsair youth movement. She paved roads and lived in Kibbutz Mishmar Haemek and Kibbutz Beit Alfa until she had to abandon the man she loved, Avreim'ele, along with her ideals and her girlfriends Clara and Ziga, because she had to go back to Poland to recover from a terrible fever she'd caught, and because her sensitive, almost transparent alabaster skin and her gorgeous Titian red hair could not survive the deathtrap of the Mediterranean climate.

Her good health was restored in Poland, but the teeth she'd lost in Palestine weren't, and her older brother, Leibek Gruber, who'd been to dental school in Berlin — or was it Vienna — made gold bridges and crowns for her. The Germans murdered Leibek.

In Krakow, after the war, a dentist who had gone to dental school with Leibek pulled out the miserable stumps left in my mother's mouth and made false teeth for her. That dentist was my worst nightmare, even worse than the Spanish Inquisition I'd read about in books — but that was after the war, before we immigrated to Palestine.

The gold of the crowns and bridges Uncle Leibek had made for my mother was given to Hania Seremet, and that gold bought me a few more weeks in the village, in the fresh air, the wide open spaces, the sunlight, on the side of life, the Aryan side. My good health, my tan, my apple-red cheeks, my bruised knuckles, the hard skin on the bottoms of my feet — all those disappeared in a flash in my parents' hiding place.

The lice remained.

I don't like all this digging up of the past.

I ABSOLUTELY DID NOT WANT TO BE THERE WITH MY MOTHER and father, two people I didn't remember, almost strangers, whom I didn't like at all.

My mother began asking me all sorts of questions; she asked, asked, and asked. I didn't understand her language. I'd forgotten. They didn't understand me. I'd come back speaking a dialect, a rural language in which every sentence ended with a mew of surprise: ta-ee-ou!!!

I wasn't much of a talker anyway, and I only answered questions when I had no choice.

My mother took a few small, damp rags and began wiping me all over, even inside my ears, even behind my ears, even between my toes. My cute little toes, my family. Fat father big toe, mother middle toe, and their three children: two slightly bigger children and a sweet baby — my little toe.

Those pink toes were like little birds. On the underside of each one was a small bump, like a tiny beak. Sometimes, when I had something to draw with, I drew little faces on my toenails. I liked to draw them on my palms too, and then distort them to give them funny expressions.

But when I saw the row of blue numbers on Uncle Isser Laufer's arm — he always wore a hat, and under it a kind of upside-down saucer made of soft velvet — I immediately stopped drawing on my body.

I saw.

I saw it, that row of numbers, when Uncle Isser Laufer rolled up his sleeve and wound a strip of black leather around his arm and attached a black box to his forehead, then wrapped a striped white shawl around his shoulders and swayed forward and back and sideways so strangely, not exactly a respectable way for a grown-up to behave, as he mumbled and made strange sounds.

Unlike the drawings I drew on my toenails and palms, the numbers drawn on Uncle Isser Laufer's arm couldn't be erased, even after he washed it. They were there forever. And from then on, I never drew anything on my skin or body again.

That was when there was no more war in the world and my mother and father and I lived in a room in an apartment with other people and my mother kept saying, saying, and saying that without her, we all would have been destroyed. She was right. All sorts of people began visiting us then. Uncle Isser Laufer also appeared suddenly and lived with us for a while. My mother said that before the war, he had a family, a wife and a child, but now it was just him. And the people who came, ugly, gray, tired, and sad, had those numbers. They would roll up their sleeves and show them to my mother and father.

I didn't look, but I saw. And they told us. They told us everything. Unbelievable stories that happened in the world. I didn't look, but I saw. I didn't listen, but I heard.

I hated all those ugly people. Uncle Isser Laufer was the only one I liked. I loved to breathe the smell that came from him, a sad, lovely smell, like the fragrance of lilacs.

My mother scrubbed and wiped my whole body with the damp rags. It wasn't very pleasant, being with those two people I didn't know, didn't remember, didn't understand, who were shocked and amazed by me, who were so excited to see me, who tried to wash and clean and fix me. I felt as if something was very wrong with me.

I didn't want to be there.

When the dirt that had accumulated on my body during all those months in the village — in the pigpen, in the straw-lined coffin I slept in — when all that dirt had been wiped away, the lice had their turn. And it was wonderful.

My mother spread a newspaper on a chair, bent my head so that my hair streamed downward, and began combing it with a fine-tooth comb. It hurt at first. My hair was full of knots. But at some point, the lice started to fall out. A shower of lice fell onto the newspaper, thousands of lice, millions, and every time a louse fell onto the newspaper it made a gentle tapping sound. A shower of taps. After a while, the shower thinned out — the time between taps grew longer and longer — until the tapping stopped altogether. And no more lice fell out. I watched the entire time, entranced by the creatures that rustled on the newspaper right under my nose and eyes.

When the shower of lice died away, my mother folded the newspaper that was teeming with life and went inside the apartment to the part where the Juzaks lived — of course, only after checking that the coast was clear — and threw the folded newspaper with millions of my lice into the opening of the oven under the gas range in Mrs. Rozalia Juzakowa's kitchen.

The lice burned silently.

Having my hair combed with a fine-tooth comb became a daily ritual. I enjoyed it very much.

I liked the closeness to my mother, who under different circumstances had not volunteered hugs, kisses, and stroking, and I liked the temporary and surprising relief from my itching head, but mainly I liked the reading.


While my mother spread the newspaper and combed the hair on my bent head, I looked at the black marks on the paper. I quickly learned to distinguish the ones that moved, running every which way, from the ones that remained quiet and orderly in their places.

Those weren't the lice, they were letters.

There were pictures too. To see them properly, I sometimes had to turn the paper around. That's how I realized that the letters — like the pictures — had a direction. They didn't stand on their heads or lie on their sides or decide suddenly to turn over and walk away. The lice, on the other hand, used to dart back and forth in total chaos.

I assume that my mother and father helped me distinguish between the scurrying lice and the inanimate shapes, and taught me how to decipher their meanings. They must have, because I knew how to read. I've always known how to read, and reading kept me sane.

The Red Army and Batiushka Tovarish Stalin saved my life, and books saved me from life.

I've always read, everything, every word: captions in the newspaper, headlines, articles, advertisements. I even read the four-volume Encyclopedia of Sexual Knowledge that survived from the Jewish gynecologist's library. Later, when we were liberated and we could come out of our hiding place and walk on the side of life, the Aryan side, I found that while my legs had forgotten how to walk, and I could talk only sparingly and in a thin whisper, I had no problem reading — reading signs, placards, graffiti, reading everything: what was written on bus tickets, on matchboxes, on cigarette packs, on labels, in books.

Books, those wonderful books. Those colossal heroes — Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens, Romain Rolland, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Kipling. ... A terrible fear crept into my heart: Would there be enough books?

But there were, and there continued to be. They didn't stop.

Later on, they waited for me in libraries. Bound and rebound, again and again. Sometimes a careless bookbinder would distractedly slice off the edges of the pages, lopping off a bit of the body of the text. Then I had to guess at the beginnings or ends of the words that were missing.


Excerpted from Girl by Alona Frankel, Sondra Silverston. Copyright © 2016 Alona Frankel. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

author of Primo Levi: The Matter of a Life - Berel Lang

An extraordinary voice and view of a hidden-child in Poland during theHolocaust and of her daring return to life afterward.

DBE, House of Lords - Baroness Ruth Deech

A newAnne Frank...What a tribute to the human spirit that a little girl, subjected to the utmost cruelties, and forced to be aware of the frailty of her existence, should have survived to become a talented writer and illustrator, her imagination, artistic spirit and eloquence speaking to the whole world about lessons we must never forget.

author ofThe Stranger Within Sarah SteinandThe Golems of Gotham - Thane Rosenbaum

A wonderful contribution to the canon of Holocaust literature—the story of a hidden child that is told with indelible images andtender words.

Painter and author ofPainted in Words - Samuel Bak

Alona Frankel’s Girlhas enthralled me from its very first pages. What a rare experience! My own survival of the Holocaust (I was a young boy, a little older than Alona) inevitably, turned me into a hypersensitive reader. Books that 'feel wrong,' trite or inconsequential, books that indulge in any form of sentimentalism, of self-pity or moralizing—put me off. On the other hand, Frankel swept me away. I found her writing astonishingly musical, imaginative, visual and poetic, always powerful. And her pages of heartbreaking tragedies, or stories of human resilience, contain a sense of sad irony, which distances her from the gentleness of Anne Frank’s diary, but brings her much closer to the planets of Primo Levi or Marcel Proust. Girlis a timeless signpost in the canon of great literature.

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